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Family History: Surname Research in Online Transcriptions

14:32 Mon 12th Jul 2010 |

 The subject of surnames origins is extensively covered on various Internet sites, simply googling a surname can bring up dozens of links that will lead you to many varied sources. These sites can help discover the meaning of a name, the type of name it is and from which Country, region or ethnic background it originates.

What’s In a Name?
Family history hunters are able to plot the growth and expansion of a name across countries and continents using a multitude of sources introduced over centuries where ancestor’s names had to be included. For example you can trace the journey a name made to Ohio when the name originated in the Ukraine.
Surnames come in just a handful of types, such as names that refer to a specific place, like London, Cornwall or Hull. There are names that came about by identifying people by where they lived on a more local level, for example 3 Johns in a Village would be John on the Hill (John Hill), John from the Wood, John Wood or John by the river crossing, (John Ford).  
People were named for their occupation, John the Baker (John Baker) John the Butcher (John Butcher) or John the candle stick maker (John Chandler).
In any country and in any language, people were named for their father, John's son became Johnson, Sven's son became Svenson, Genghis Khan's son became... well that's another tale. The term for being named after the father is patronymic. There are some instances of children being named after the mother (matronymic), but these names are much rarer.
As surnames developed through necessity due to population growth and, more importantly, legal requirements, combinations of any of the above elongated names and made them more complex and identifiable, so John Wood became John Smallwood and John Ford became John Fordson.
All this name development is what we are left with to identify our ancestors; our research starts with those that we are named for and those that share our name.
Room for Error
This is where we reach our first research hurdle and this is where our research can be held up if we are using any of the online sites that have become the established research tools in the last 10 years or so.
The problem lies with the amount of transcriptions that have been created between the Primary Source (i.e. the written record made initially) and the words we read on our screen.
As a good example, look at the National Index created by the Registrar Generals Office every year since the system of civil registration began in 1837.  Every quarter the local registrar’s office would send records of registered Births, Deaths and Marriages taken at the local office.  These were hand copied registers that repeated the information in the local register. This gives us room for error number 1!
At the General Register Office, 3 different indexes were compiled combining all registers and all names alphabetically to create a national index; this mammoth task was carried out by hand. Unsurprisingly this is our room for error number 2 - and this is only a matter of months after the event was originally registered!
Travel down the decades into the time when the hand written records were indexed nationally with the use of typewriters.  At this point we have indexers not only reading and transcribing the original entry, but also using typewriters! Room for error numbers 3 and 4!
Fast forward to the more modern age, when the General Register Office started to allow their massive index to be bought and transcribed from their version to an online version that was computer software friendly.  People tasked with this transcribing from the GRO index into a computer index may have little or no experience of English and Welsh Christian Names and Surnames; here room for error is incalculable.
Then factor in the compiling of an index for a search engine on any web based genealogical site where the indexer is only using the third or fourth version of the index, and you can clearly see that researchers need to be willing to accept that what they find or don't find is down to a lot of room for errors
Therefore from the day your ancestors sign the 2 marriage registers in Church, signs to register the birth of a child or signs to register the death of a loved one, the capacity for their name to be mis-read, mis-transcribed and mis-indexed is vast!
And that is only in a record that is written in English!  Imagine the problems for the Mormons when they began indexing the Parish Registers first created in the 1530s and written in Latin!
There is therefore the need to compile a test list of potential variants of the surname being researched. Even then the understanding that even that might not lead to the identification of the right person. This is particularly true in census returns, where the original hand writing of the local enumerator has proved to be so varied in competence and writing ability that the strangest of names have appeared on the indexes which bear no relation to the name you read in the Primary Source.
I am suggesting that getting back to ploughing through the Primary Source may well be the last resort for anyone hopelessly stumped!

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